Double homicide, face biting, and superpowers. What more could you ask for in a story? A Florida teen has been arrested and charged with the fatal stabbing of a couple outside their home. The 19-year-old boy was found by local police biting the dead’s man’s face. Yes, you read that correctly. According to authorities, Austin Harrouff attacked John Stevens and Michelle Mishcon randomly as they sat in their garage, stabbing them multiple times.
Harrouff’s mother, Mina, had called police a few hours after her son stormed out of a restaurant after a fight with his father. Mina told police her son had been acting strangely for about a week, saying he had superpowers and was “here to protect people.” Unbeknownst to Mina, her son had already been arrested 45 minutes earlier for the murders. It took several officers and a dog to subdue Harrouff, who shook off electric shocks from a stun gun. Sheriff William Snyder reported Harrouff was “abnormally strong,” incoherent, and making “animal-like noises.”
According to his mother, Harrouff doesn’t have a history of mental illness and wasn’t a heavy drug user. Initial hospital tests run on Harrouff came back negative for a number of drugs, including methamphetamine, but the results for substances known to cause excited delirium are still pending.
Such a strange crime leave you wondering what kind of defense strategy, if any, will the teen claim as the case progresses?
Defenses to Murder Are Few and Far Between
There’s few true defenses to murder, as most defenses only mitigate the crime. In order to mount a possible defense, a defendant would need to negate the “mens rea,” or mental element of the crime. Self-defense, necessity, duress, and crime prevention are a few that, if proven, may prevent a conviction. However, unless further evidence comes out in this case, it doesn’t seem Harrouff will be able to argue any of these.
What’s left? Insanity and intoxication are 2 possible defenses that may mitigate Harrouff’s charges. Even though intoxication, or drug use, can sometimes be used as a mitigating circumstance, many states don’t put much weight into a voluntary intoxication excuse. With his claims of super powers, best guess is that he’ll go for an insanity defense. Will it really work, though?
Defendants Bear the Burden of Proving Insanity
All but 4 states allow the insanity defense against criminal charges. In these states, if proven, a defendant will be found not guilty by reason of insanity. The remaining 4 states require a verdict of “guilty but insane.”
Since Florida does have an insanity defense, Harrouff will have the burden of proving his insanity. Florida law, along with the majority of other states that allow the defense, requires the defendant to successfully argue he/she was insane when the crime was committed. Now, you may be thinking this teen doesn’t have a documented history of mental illness so it’s going to be hard to prove, but Florida does allow temporary insanity pleas.
Courts vary by jurisdiction on how they determine whether a defendant is legally insane, but there’s generally 2 schools of thought about what it means to be legally insane. The Model Code recognizes insanity when the mental disease causes an inability to either appreciate the wrongfulness of actions or an inability to control impulses. The “M’Naughten” rule considers whether the defendant’s mental disease caused them to fail to understand what they were doing or fail to know that what they were doing was wrong. Florida uses the latter standard.
Proving insanity at the commission of the crime negates the mens rea element because it proves the defendant couldn’t have had the required mental state needed to be guilty of the crime. In other words, although the acts were physically committed, there was no “guilty mind.”
What Will This Mean for the Defendant?
One thing to remember is that the insanity defense has to be argued in front of a jury and that’s a hard sell. Once it reaches this point, a trial then becomes not whether Harrouff committed the crime, but rather what was going on inside his head. Experts say succeeding is extremely difficult, even when there’s a clear record of mental history, which the teen in this case doesn’t even have.
If Harrouff can successfully argue an insanity defense, it’s not a get out of jail free card—he’ll probably end up in a mental health institution. Although these type of sentences are typically longer than what a prison sentence would have been, Florida law allows judicial discretion in terms of deciding whether to sentence the defendant to an institution or some other type of sentence.
Authored by Ashley Roncevic, LegalMatch Legal Writer and Attorney at Law